Haley Mlotek On Perverts And Puritans, Balenciaga and Sophie Buhai, The Authorities, Armani, The Divorced
Named for the color assigned to the underwater uniformed military service, “navy blue” was chosen because it’s the most colorfast of natural dyes—it won’t fade as quickly in the sun, won’t warp too soon after being exposed to the elements. It is a principled and paradoxical color. On an alignment chart, navy blue would be lawful neutral—at the end of the color wheel, yet right in the middle of a moral spectrum.
Other shades of blue have names with beautiful sounds and meanings. Think of how it feels to describe ultramarine, a radical blueness that comes from the Latin ultramarinus: “beyond the sea.” There’s turquoise, the opaque brilliance of that qu in the middle of a green-blue word. But navy blue is all purpose and entirely function. Of course, there’s a catch in the reason—it’s not that navy doesn’t fade, but that it does so slowly. Lots of navies have moved on to black, because it can outlast their namesake. The Canadian Forces, in their Dress Instructions, play both sides by saying they consider navy blue to be, technically, a shade of black. Picture me, squinting, as I click through photos from the runway shows at Pitti Uomo and Paris: is that black, or is it navy? Some navy blues come through the screen clear as the winter sky outside my window. There is a navy coat at Celine that looks like it belongs in a new film adaptation of The Sorrows of Young Werther, the navy blue peacoat a tailcoat for the twenty-first century. The brushed silk of a Jil Sander almost-all-blue outfit—from the top of a bucket hat to the hem of the lightly creased pants—gives me goosebumps, the thought of that material causing the same sensation I get when I think of chalkboards. Why? I don’t know! Here are a pair of Balenciaga Navy Crushed Velvet Mules, looking like the footwear variety of David Lynch film. I see the Sophie Buhai Navy Elegant Scrunchie and spend an entire day thinking of how I would wear it: my hair in a high ponytail so I can think tall, satiny thoughts. Sophie Buhai’s accessories are, in my imagination, wardrobes for the smartest women in the movie—characters we can see thinking before they speak, they choose dark colors and soft materials.
Navy (or “Navy’s Law”) is a color for perverts and puritans alike. Whether worn to make or break rules is a matter of preferences. It inspires directories and order, catalogues and indexes, because navy blue ink is the preferred color for signing legally binding documents. It is the wash of blueprints, the infrastructure of work, of buildings that will go from existing in imaginations to rising in front of our horizons. Navy has been the preferred shade of all manner of dubiously assigned authority—bankers and police, the powerful who don’t trust their own capacity to retain power so instead guard the limits of it. The United Nations deliberately chose not to use navy for their uniforms—it was, they thought, too coded as “authoritative” rather than “peacemaking.” They chose a robin’s egg blue instead.
When I was in makeup school my teachers taught me to avoid certain shades of blue lipstick, blue eyeshadow—too bright and it would look like disease, too grey and it would look like death. I, more as a contrarian than as a statement about authority, worked with those colors even more, trying to prove I could make them as beautiful as I saw them. The trick, I decided, was in the textures. The blue lipstick must be cream to the point of gloss to show health, happiness. The blue eyeshadow must be matte to show brightness, boldness. I don’t know why I made all these rules for myself. In my dedication I have made them into superstitions as much as directives.
The Romans considered blue crude and brutish, associating it with misfortune. Other cultures, like the ancient Egyptians, Hindus, and the North African Tuarag tribe, considered blue and blue things to be special, prized. Dark blue is the color of mourning and burial traditions from Peru to Indonesia to Palestine; the funerary wardrobe of Tutankhamun was almost entirely indigo.
A 2012 New York Times article quoted Dr. Heinz Berke, a chemist at the University of Zurich, as saying that “blue is not what you call an earth color…you don’t find it in soil.” There is almost nothing in the natural world that is both blue and safe to eat. Even blueberries (my favorite fruit) are, if I’m being honest, purple. There is the indigo milk cap, a mushroom of the Lactarius genus, but I imagine if we walked past it we would consider it poisonous—and not in the fun hallucinatory sense. Mining brought blue as a substance to the surface; suddenly there was a blue that could be bought and sold, worn and held. Christianity made it a holy color, assigning it to the Virgin Mary and naming it “Marian Blue” in the year 431 CE. Marian blue was as symbolic as it was practical—the color of the sky, the most expensive pigment. Made from the crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan, it was second only to gold for a medieval painter’s attempts at doing justice to an angel.
In 1923, an American geneticist named Clyde Keeler found that even blind mice who lacked the photoreceptors necessary to see light contracted their pupils when blue was placed in front of them. It took 75 years to confirm his early finding: every eye, even an unseeing one, can sense blue light. “I am writing this wearing a Japanese workman’s coat in tough linen of faded indigo,” writes the artist, writer, and filmmaker Derek Jarman in Chroma, his collected meditations on color. Jarman lost his vision slowly, and he writes as he comes to terms with sightlessness. He describes his visits to his doctor, where he sees “blue flashes” as his pupils are dilated with belladonna and then scanned for lesions in his retina; they put him into a “blue funk.” “The blood of sensibility is blue,” he writes. “Blue protects white from innocence. Blue drags black with it. Blue is darkness made visible…Blue has no boundaries or solutions.” Just months before he died Jarman’s film Blue was released, a single screen of Yves Klein bright blue, while his voiceover and the voiceovers of friends and collaborators mix above the pure block of blue, the sound of rain and thunder in the background, music rising and fading but always present to approximate what he can still see. “Indigo is the color of clothes,” he writes in his free associations. “Cobalt of glass. Ultramarine of painting….The arrival of indigo in Europe caused consternation…A decree prohibited ‘the newly invented pernicious and deceitful, evil and corrosive dye called the Devil’s Dye.’ In France dyers were required to take oaths not to use indigo. For two centuries indigo was hedged into legislation.”
Indigo was, like Jarman describes, an illicit and cost-efficient choice for textiles, derived from the Indigofera tinctoria crop that grew wildly and spread across Europe in the 16th century, responsible for trade wars between the continent and America. This shade of dark blue was once treated like a controlled substance, though like the original word for drug—pharmakon—it does not specify if it is poison or cure. Wanting it was dangerous. It promised transcendence and destruction in equal measure. In the 18th century, the French colony of what is now Haiti and Santo Domingo had about 1,800 indigo slave plantations in just the western provinces; a century earlier, workers in India wore masks and drank milk on the hour as a preservative against the dye, but no matter what they did, by the end of the day they spat blue. They would report placing an egg near the indigo vat and then, at the end of the day, cracking it open to reveal the yolk turned blue inside.
There are many books about blue, most with covers in the dark shade I love best. In Blue Mythologies, Carol Mavor writes chapters that read like concentric circles—a fact or an artist or a shade mentioned in one will be referenced in the next. The book is a soft hardcover, a fabric protecting your fingertips and a silky navy blue string as a placeholder for the sparse text and densely inked photos throughout. Mostly it is the study of blue when it is contradictory, which is: always. Mavor says that “the conflicting temperaments of the blues unravel easily.” She lists the ways even one color can clash: Blue is a celestial eternity, the color of heaven; blue lips and skin signal death. Her list includes the copy editor’s blue pencil, the blue nose of morality, blue movies, bluestockings (before the eighteenth century, a bluestocking was an educated and intelligent person; after the eighteenth century it became specific to educated women who according to the stereotype must be ugly if she preferred books to vanity, choosing blue stockings rather than silky ones), examination booklets, cheese. The blue eyes of the Aryan race during the Nazi regime, the bloman of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, a word that translates to “blueman” but today would be understood as saying “a black man.” There are blue collar workers and the aristocratic blue bloods. “Blue tales” is another term for fairy tales. “Blue,” the Joni Mitchell song. In 1972, the Apollo 17 astronauts took a photo of the earth with the sun behind them and called it a blue marble.
The denim of Levi Strauss, seen on workers in history books and referenced in today’s look books, is a deep, dark navy blue. “Among all the colors,” Christian Dior wrote in 1954, “navy blue is the only one which can ever compete with black. It has all the same qualities.” His first collection, presented in 1947, featured a navy blue dress called the Soirée. For Fall/Winter 2017, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri updated that item and showed a runway full of blues—denims and wools, taffetas and silks—to demonstrate how polar a single color could be in its heavenly and earthly connections. “Armani Blue” was the name given to the wide-shouldered and assertively tailored suits Giorgio Armani made in the 80s and 90s, and he almost always wore a navy blue sweater for his post-runway show bow.
A “blue movie” is pornographic. A movie that looks blue has the same effect—an arousal, an emotion made physical. In Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat, a tragic romance about love on opposite sides of the law, the sky and smoke are both so clouded that bullets light up brighter than stars. Mann said, in a 20th-anniversary article published by Rolling Stone, that his cameraman “paints with light,” that he chose the shade because it was “expressive to me of that kind of alienation.” I already alluded to Blue Velvet but I will add that I watched it as a teenager and out of all the perversions I could have taken from that movie I think the only one that stuck was a self-imposed rule I have, which is to wear red lipstick with navy blue dresses.
You know the saying that lists all the things a bride needs? Something old/Something new/Something borrowed/Something blue. In my mind, I think the something blue must be a pale blue—robin’s egg blue, Tiffany’s box blue, unassuming and innocent, extremely unironic in its representation of virginal virtue. Once broken, the engagement ring loses its promise, and that pastel blue goes from unironic to mocking. Navy blue (or “Navy’s Law”) is the color for divorcées. In my mind I see the scenes from my favorite divorce movie, Possession, where Isabelle Adjani fucks up her marriage for reasons no one would understand, even if she explained. Her wardrobe is made of silk navy blue dresses, high-necked with small buttons—they are divorce dresses. Before I forget, I have to include this: Andy Warhol wanted to call his movie Fuck but compromised with Blue Movie.
Writers who love blue and blue objects understand the limits of desire and the danger of obsession. Perhaps that’s why so much of their writing makes navy blue into nostalgia, a color representing memory—both now and never. What we remember is present and unseen, felt but untouchable. Vladimir Nabokov was a lepidopterist who specialized in Blues, small butterflies that look brown, silver, or white. Nabokov liked them because the blue can only be seen on their upper surfaces, a brief flicker of blue made invisible by the movement of their wings, writing that they were “hard and glistening…with golden knobs and plate-armor wings." Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, her meditation on beauty and pain, is about Pecola Breedlove, the little girl who wants blue eyes and a “milky whiteness.” She drinks her glasses of milk, a recurring motif in the book, from a Shirley Temple cup painted blue. William Gass, in On Being Blue, wrote that early derivations of the word from Medieval Latin more accurately describe shades of a bruise—it sometimes meant yellow with a green hint under the skin. There was a saying that’s fallen out of fashion: to blush like a blue dog, which meant, he explained, that you weren’t blushing at all. Although in French the word bleu still means both the color and the bruise, Gass still thought there’s a blush to “blue” language—words we want to say because we shouldn’t. His words conjure an emotional ice storm of the heart, a passion that freezes rather than burns.
Artists who work with blue have their oeuvre linked with the ink they prefer—think of Picasso’s Blue Period, all Prussian Blue, the same color Katsushika Hokusai used when he painted The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. There are Wassily Kandinsky’s blues, referenced by Chris Ofili in his Blue Rider series, a print of which reappears in Blue Mythologies completely uncompromised by the reproduction. The navy is so rich the curtains look like velvet, the silver moon and grapes and smoke and nails of a bright blue woman reclining nude in front of pyramids rising behind her. Anna Atkins, often credited as the first woman photographer, made cyanotypes in the early 1800s—photographs made with exposure to light instead of a camera, resulting in a cyan-blue print—of sea algae, poppies, floating like they were in space or water. There are Francesca Woodman’s inky blue photographs, her diary entries documenting the times she came across blue: Tomorrow they might have blueberry muffins for breakfast, so buy yourself a blue velvet cape today. She describes plums she ate in Italy, so purple they could be navy, and says they are called “nun’s thighs.” Writing for The New Republic, Jo Livingstone tells the story of a medieval German nun who, after hundreds of years, still has teeth stained with lapis lazuli, probably because she stuck her paintbrush in her mouth while she worked on illuminating manuscripts.
I was born blue. No breath, no heartbeat, and my skin, I’m told, was the bluish-grey death tint of every mother’s nightmare. It was one long minute and then my eyes opened. They were the rich, muddled blue of most newborns. Baby blues are what we call a light pastel shade, but the blue of a baby’s eye is a deceptive navy—like a comic book jewel or a cartoon berry— because it is the result of light, not color. They have no blue pigment but scatter blue light at us. Whatever color their eyes become, at birth, a baby’s unpigmented (unpainted?) iris holds molecular scatterers, a see-through seeing-eye conundrum. Once the color is set, the iris holds light rather than reflects it.
I had eyes like most babies, but unlike most babies I couldn’t cry. Sometime before I turned two I had surgery to repair a blocked tear duct. This is perhaps my first memory: a gown too big, dragging on the ground, a stuffed animal in my arms, my mother at the end of the hall. Now I think of myself as someone who cries often, but my loves correct me. We’ll go to a movie together and I’ll say that it made me cry, and they’ll say they didn’t see any tears. It’s more accurate to say what I mean in those moments, which is not that tears happened but I had what I call the cry feeling. It’s the sensation I could cry so strong, or the feeling of being without breath so true, that in my imagination my breath and my tears turn dark blue inside me.
Oh, one last thing: it’s a myth that our blood is blue until exposed to oxygen. Blood is deep red in our veins, the blue an effect of the light between the eye and the brain—again the light, always the light. This is called a retinex, the combination of retina and cortex, to explain that the eyes and brain are doing too much work to explain what they see. I understand this concept so completely I have nothing to add. Navy blue, I’ve decided, is a mixed metaphor. How beautiful it would be to believe that hearts beat navy blue. I know not to hold my breath.
Haley Mlotek’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, The Globe and Mail, and Hazlitt, among others. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce.
- Text: Haley Mlotek